Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Old Labour - a futile defence

In the dim distant past, Tony Blair made a self-pitying speech about having scars on his back from trying to change the public sector and complained about being held back by the "forces of conservatism." I guess he meant me. I remember life under New Labour as a constant struggle against stupid policies introduced with either macho posturing about tough choices or hand-wringing whining about how we must compete with China. The idea that my opposition was conservative rankled. Certainly in my field of adult education, I was a vociferous advocate of reform; it was the government's specific changes that I opposed.

Years passed, and, when I expressed alarm at the prospect of Corbyn leading the Labour Party, I was shocked when someone called me 'red Tory scum.' It wasn't so much the scum I objected to, but Tory? Now, anyone who is against Corbyn's leadership gets a far worse insult, the most objectionable name in the Corbynista demonology – 'Blairite.'

Reflecting on it all in a state of existential despair, I suddenly thought, 'that's odd, they're doing the same thing.' And it became clear that though doctrinally different, the Corbyn and Blair factions had something in common.

Blairites were convinced that they held the secret to electoral victory. It's a formula they had worked out and bottled that they think can be applied whatever the circumstances. As true meritocrats (in the original satirical sense of the term as coined by Michael Young) they see their election victories solely as a result of their superior efforts. They don't think of themselves as the beneficiaries of a specific time in history. The cards fell right for them as the Conservative Party self-destructed. They played their hand well, but it was a good one.

Their method was to say that they were not the Labour Party. They ran against themselves and became New Labour. The Blairites seemed to dislike their own party. They talked about 'big tent' politics, which meant including voters and parties to the right of Labour alone. Traditional voters could be safely ignored, as they had 'nowhere else to go'. (They did, as it turns out, they went home. Turnout crashed).

Three election victories, each more unconvincing than the last, gave them confidence. They clung to a post hoc rationalisation that the reason that they won so big in 1997 was because of the policies that they adopted after they won. They forgot that some of what they promised before the election was different. And this blinded them to their subsequent electoral decline that left them vulnerable to a Tory revival. They were lucky again. The Tory Party extended the franchise for their leadership contests to all members and elected a new leader with a whopping 60% of the vote. They chose Ian Duncan Smith. Which brings me round to Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn has nothing like as good a hand electorally, but that is not his priority anyway. He too has run against his party. He also doesn't like them. Instead of offering victory by compromising principles, he offers principles by compromising victory. But what are his principles? Are they Labour principles? Well, on foreign policy, certainly not. But again there is a parallel. Blair schmoozed to corporations and made friends with Rupert Murdoch. Corbyn cuddled up to any anti-Western regime, however grim, and allied with theocratic fascists. Both sided with Labour's natural enemies, though it has to be said that Putin and Hamas make Murdoch look like Father Christmas.

Ultimately, both Blairites and Corbynistas opposed 'actually existing' Labour and wanted to reform it in their own image. Both claimed novelty - New Labour or a 'new, kinder, gentler politics' (the practice seems somewhat different). Both saw themselves as the sole repository of political virtue. Both actively disliked the bulk of the party that they led. This had consequences. Blairite control freakery reduced the role of activists and it became a shell party, an organisation for sustaining the leadership. This opened up the possibility of change if a surge of new members could be recruited to support it, something Labour enabled through its new method of electing the leader. And that is why Corbyn won. His new activists, organised through groups like Momentum, are also trying to restructure the membership to make it the party of a different type of loyalist.

This self-loathing strikes me as odd. So what is it they dislike (apart from anyone having the temerity to disagree with them)?  I think that the answer lies in Labour's history. Labour was always a coalition. It was formed in 1900 as a coalition of trade unions with the three socialist parties. But even those parties were very different. The largest, the Independent Labour Party, was non-doctrinaire, The Social Democratic Federation was Marxist, while The Fabian Society was technocratic. There is no coherent ideology that is authentically Labour. We have seen Labour cabinets that have included Cripps and Bevan with Bevin and Dalton, and later, Foot and Benn with Jenkins and Healey. Coalition has always been the nature of the beast.

Coalitions are not nice, cosy arrangements that produce a sensible consensus. They are pits of rivalry, hatred, and mutual recrimination, punctuated by periods of power struggle. Policy emerges through dialectic rather than reasoned agreement. The Labour Party has never been an easy place and has always been fractious. Problems emerge when one faction is dominant to the complete exclusion of the others. Then party loyalty becomes factional loyalty. This isn't a straight right/left split. One of New Labour's most ferocious early critics was the former deputy leader, Roy Hattersley, a figure from the right. Within New Labour, the Brown/Blair split poisoned relations. Under Corbyn, around 90% of the Parliamentary Party are dissidents, including many on the left. This is factional politics.

New Labour was at least recognisable as part of the mainstream, the Corbyn faction is a tiny fringe group. Blair also had the advantage of being able to offer electoral success, Corbyn is facing almost certain electoral oblivion. Blair was more secure and could win support from those outside his immediate circle, though some of the centre left was uneasy. Corbyn's support lies mainly outside Parliament, but, given the change in voting rules, he looks to be unremovable in the short term.

There are differences between the two. An established faction is more secure than an insurgent one. As a result, it can be more tolerant of difference, more inclusive, and make for more congenial, if condescending, company in disagreement. While Blairites were established and experienced insiders, Corbynistas are part of an insurgency. They have a more conspiratorial mindset, are distrustful and hostile. Michael White's judgement that "Jeremy Corbyn is a very nice man, nice but naive. Some of those around him are neither," applies in spades to his supporters. I know some who are lovely people, good friends even, but others can be abusive brutes. It all reminds me of a section of Jonathan Rose's wonderful book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, where he discusses the Communist Party's failure to win working class support.
Put bluntly, the trouble with Marx was Marxists, whom British workers generally found to be dogmatic, selfish, and antiliterary. ... British working people judged Marxism by Marxists they knew, and concluded, with good reason, that such people were not going to make a better world.
They are making Labour another 'nasty party' and it will have the same result. The parallel with Ian Duncan Smith does not look far fetched. Neither were credible prime ministerial candidates. Both were symbols of membership revolt against 'the establishment.' Neither could win. IDS was removed, opening the way for Cameron and a slow Tory revival. Corbyn's fate, in the far more loyal Labour Party, is unclear.

So here I am, a Labour member, on-and-off, for decades who was disillusioned by Blair, but who is now homeless and unwelcome under Corbyn. So what's the solution?

Labour faces big problems. Scotland is gone, dominated by the SNP. The Blairite tactic of targeting swing voters in marginal constituencies, trying to win back supporters from the Tories is absolutely necessary. Power cannot be won without it, but is it enough? Corbyn's strategy of concentrating on the core vote, young voters and increasing the turnout amongst the working class electorate, even if it worked, could not win a general election on its own. It could only give Labour larger majorities in seats they already hold. Labour needs to be able to do both, and that suggests that the mainstream Labour coalition doesn't look such a bad idea after all. What Labour must not do under any circumstances is to confuse the views of the members with that of the voters. Many in the Corbyn camp think that the leader's popularity with party members reflects support in the electorate as a whole. They are wrong. The Tories are opening up a big lead in the polls. This is a mistake that the Blairites did not make, as they over-obsessed about focus groups and market testing.

My hope is that a revival of the old Labour coalition would be possible, making someone like me on the old left feel happy about paying my membership dues. And maybe, just maybe, the Labour Party will stop reacting to every defeat with factional power grabs. But to do this requires a change in the leadership as soon as is practicable and hope for the return of uneasy party unity and toleration of diversity. Some are beginning to advocate a formal split, abandoning Labour to the Corbynista faction and forming a new party. It strikes me as suicidal. The British electoral system punishes splits. New Labour may come to regret abandoning their flirtation with proportional representation before 1997. But then carrying on and making the best of it is equally suicidal. If there is no change and Labour blunders on, then the future looks bleak for a long time ahead.

No comments: